This Attack on Titan review contains spoilers.
Attack on Titan Season 3 Episode 20
“Why? Because it’s fun…”
Attack on Titan is an extremely fantastical series that features man-eating monsters, unfathomable special abilities, and absolutely dazzling weaponry. It’s a series that always boils down to the people, not the monsters, but it still exists in this heightened take on reality.
Attack on Titan contains outlandish sci-fi storylines, but the new information that all of this started over ingrained racism, a war for oil, and a recycling of power between feuding forces is certainly a level of reality that I wouldn’t have expected to enter the series. At the same time, it also feels oddly appropriate to see a heavy stylized anime world trip up over the same conflicts that have plagued our country in the real world and wrestle with issues that are still deeply present in modern times.
“The Basement,” the previous episode of the series, saves the big reveals for its final act, but this is easily one of the densest—if not the densest—Attackon Titan to date. Practically every line from Grisha’s notebooks is pure exposition and a glowing glimpse into his past from what feels like a whole other world. “That Day” throws so freaking much at the audience. It practically feels like the pilot for a prequel spin-off series.
Grisha’s story begins with him and his sister, Fay, growing up in a place called Liberio. There’s an intense class system in place where the citizens of Liberio need to wear armbands and other signs of identification as they live in some kind of internment camp setup. Civilians appear to also not be able to leave the Walls of their community, a rule that Grisha and Fay forego as they get swept up in the majesty of a passing blimp. This was teased at the end of the previous episode, but that sense of wonder that was present then quickly festers into abject terror. Not long after Grisha and his sister are outside the borders of Liberio, they’re apprehended by two Marleyan soldiers. What follows is truly upsetting material and a stark reminder of the brutal realities of war.
The moment these soldiers take control there’s an uncomfortable sense of anxiety that sneaks in. You know that there’s trouble ahead. Grisha withstands a simple beating, but Fay is taken away and these soldiers continue to manipulate the trust of these kids. It’s a grueling gut punch when Fay’s mutilated corpse shows up later, but what’s arguably even worse is how the soldiers smugly deny any responsibility. They can confidently hide behind the power dynamics that the politics and history between Eldia and Marley have led to, but Grisha is too young to understand any of that yet. All at once he gets a harsh lesson in reality when he knowsthe soldiers are lying to him and going to get away with it, but he also has to watch his father grovel to these men and actually accept that this was Fay’s fault for being out there in the first place.
Fay’s death and the way in which Grisha is thrown into all of this prompts Grisha’s father to give him a history lesson about the origin of everything, the feud between the Eldians and Marleyans, and the very lore of the Titans. All of this begins nearly 2000 years back when Ymir Fritz, the Eldians’ ancestor, succumbs to temptation and makes a damning deal with the “Devil of All Earth” in exchange for the power of the Titans.
The old timey photos of Ymir, the first Titans, and the “Death of all Evil” are some beautiful, chilling images that turn Attack on Titan into even more of a haunting fairy tale. Admittedly, “That Day” suffers from a bit of a “slideshow” effect as narration compliments a bunch of stationary images in order to breeze through story, but it’s a reasonable concession here and the episode’s score is so damn moving that it helps all of this become even more powerful.
After Ymir’s passing, her soul gets divided amongst nine individuals who become nine pivotal Titans. These Titans go on to form Eldia in the first place and use their transformative powers to wipe out the neighboring nation of Marley. It’s enlightening to see that Attack on Titan positions Eldians to be the “good guys,” but nobody in this situation is really a hero. The Eldians allegedly abuse their Titan powers and basically cleanse the region of their enemies for generations. With that level of imprisonment taking place, it’s quite easy to empathize with the Marleyans when they eventually decide to rebel and strike back.
Marley pulls off a massive coup and commandeers seven of the nine Eldian Titans and is able to overtake their enemies. Accordingly, Fritz, the King of the Eldians is exiled to Paradis Island, where he erects walls to keep his remaining people safe. In spite of this “Heaven” of sorts for the Eldians, some of them—like the Jaeger family—get left behind.
Rather than kill these civilians, the Marleyan residents give them a home, but under the horrendous conditions that Grisha’s now grown up with in Liberio. This ancient conflict and the events of The Great Titan War could easily be its own movie and it’d be totally worthwhile entertainment. It’s such a thrilling piece of pivotal backstory and so much history gets crammed into a single episode.
It’s remarkable to see how much Grisha is initially not interested in any of this history and fails to see how it accounts for his sister’s death. Grisha’s naivety towards the generational conquest aspect of war and the biased nature of baseless grudges is almost endearing considering he later justifies his own aggression against Marleyan soldiers using the same antiquated beliefs. The schism in the beliefs and actions of Grisha and his father makes for a major turning point in their relationship, but what’s so compelling here is that neither of them is wrong with their responses.
Grisha’s father has seen his community get murdered around him and understands that it’s sometimes worth it to just keep your head down, but Grisha’s also entitled to be furious about how the sins of his ancestors from thousands of years ago has arbitrarily cost him his sister. “That Day” occupies this real, raw place for most of the episode and it’s its greatest asset.
Even when an older Grisha joins the Eldian Restorationists and a resistance is planned, it’s hard to not appreciate the poetic justice in how this is exactly what the Marleyans did centuries ago against them. These past events, combined with what’s gone on in the present, confirm that this cyclical rotation of power between nations will never be over and that’s perhaps the realest idea that the show has ever explored.
“That Day” continues to cover impressive amounts of territory when it flashes forward to Grisha’s young adulthood. Upon turning eighteen, Grisha takes over his father’s doctor practice, but this new change of pace only helps indoctrinate Grisha into the secret world of Eldian resistance rather than put him on the path to first class medicine. Grisha learns the true ghastly nature of Fay’s death and vows to help lead the Eldian Restorationists to success over Marley. This commitment also introduces Grisha to the resistance’s coveted Marleyan mole, known only as “The Owl.” “The Owl” helps as much as possible, but their biggest nugget of knowledge is that Ymir actually used Titan powers to help the land prosper, not to enslave their enemies, like the history books claim.
Grisha finds his head spinning with all of the competing information that comes his way. One voice that becomes a source of support for him is Dina Fritz. Dina continues to correct history and explains that the Eldians and her royal family were more pacifistic than people claim. In fact, the entire reason the war between the Eldian Empire and Marley broke out is because King Fritz decided to hide away at Paradis Island rather than fight. There’s still a very real disconnect here over what’s the truth, but the one piece of information that can be agreed upon is that the Founding Titan power that King Fritz possesses is enough to take out Marley once and for all and the resistance is determined to make that happen.
It’s surprising to see how far down the wormhole of Grisha’s life this episode goes. “That Day” jumps from Grisha’s early days in the resistance to eventually marrying Dina and the birth of Zeke.Little Zeke playing with an ape toy is also some pretty brilliant foreshadowing towards how he’ll eventually become the Beast Titan. It’s touching to see Grisha gain an ally through all of this pain, but the fact that he’s so concerned with the powerful royal bloodline that Zeke will possess also hints at the prospect that his marriage with Dina may also carry ulterior motives.
As times get increasingly tense between Marley and Eldia, a new development takes place where Marley is recruiting Eldian children between the ages of five and seven to undergo Titan injections and help wage war against Fritz and Paradis Island. In exchange, the families that comply will be made honorary Marley citizens.
This is all the biggest piece of subterfuge yet. Marleyan soldiers have completely fabricated their reasoning in order to recklessly wage war and gain the precious fossil fuels that lie beneath Paradis Island. It’s a plan of impatience and desperation that uses innocent children as bait and tools of war. What’s even worse is that the consequences of attacking King Fritz is his promise that he release ten million Titans on mankind as retaliation (gee, do you think he gets pushed to that point?).
As a last ditch response, Grisha decides to submit Zeke to the Marleyan soldiers program, but training him to be a mole for them and help take them down from within. Perhaps tired of being used as a pawn and lied to for his entire life, Zeke turns the tables on his father and rats out his parents and the resistance as a whole to the Marleyan authorities for a reward.
Both Grisha and Dina are banished to Paradis Island to spend the rest of eternity as mindless Titans, but before this Grisha undergoes a particularly brutal torture session (it makes Levi’s handling of the Beast Titan look gentle) to give up the identity of “The Owl.” The episode heads even deeper into uncomfortable “Final Solution” territory as Gross discusses how Eldian extermination is a form of entertainment for these men and that they look at it no different than killing an insect or rat. Gross and his Marleyan cohorts make past foes like Reiner and Bertholdt look friendly in comparison.
Even after lengthy physical violence and having to watch his wife and friends all get turned into monsters or devoured by them, Grisha is forced to endure the wrath of Marley and the fallout of what he did to his son. It’s a devastating finish in a long history of deceit. It’s frankly a much richer origin story for all of this than I could have possibly imagined and it’s somehow a narrative that simultaneously creates sympathy for every one of these misguided characters.
During Grisha’s torture, “That Day” circles back once more to its theme of how pain and justice is cyclical. Grisha finally places his captor, Kruger, and he assumes that he’s the soldier who killed his sister all those years ago. It’s one final way for Grisha to have to literally face his past as he continues to pay for his sins and curiosity from back then, even if he’s managed to grow in that time. Of course, Kruger is actually an unexpected ally in the end, but Grisha still confronts some necessary demons with these thoughts.
All of this time in the past gets punctuated by Eren waking up screaming in a jail cell and it almost feels like he’s shouting because there’s just so much story to digest. I apologize for the length of this review, but what’s outlined here really just scratches the surface of what’s revealed in this massive episode. “
That Day” briefly revisits the present timeline as it reveals that Eren isn’t just dreaming about his father’s past, but he’s literally sharing memories with him. It’s as if he’s transported into his father’s consciousness from back then. It hints at yet another fascinating evolution in how Titans may work through generations, but honestly this episode is complex enough without Titan father-son mind melds also getting thrown into the mix.
Oh yeah, and apparently Grisha’s wife, Dina, is the Smiling Titan from the very first episode that ate Eren’s mother and prompted his whole vengeful quest in the first place. It’s almost too brilliant how all of this comes together and the many parallels between Grisha and Zeke and Eren. We’re all just trying to catch up with our ancestors’ mistakes.
“That Day” continues the remarkably strong quality that’s been present through the second half of Attack on Titan’s third season. Episodes that are consumed in exposition can sometimes be overwhelming or feel like a slog, but every moment of “That Day” is thrilling and the time just flies by. It’s an episode that you want to watch again immediately after it ends. With two episodes left, Grisha’s story and the history of the Eldians and the Marleyans isn’t over yet, and with how the show has been progressing lately that’s still lots of time to flip everything on its head a few more times over.
Oh, and Happy Father’s Day, Grisha.